In-Between: New Comics From Melissa Mendes

Posted by on June 19th, 2010 at 5:25 AM

Rob reviews FREDDY and WARMTH, two minis by Melissa Mendes.

In a large and talented 2010 graduating class from the Center For Cartoon Studies, Melissa Mendes has proven to be one of the standouts.  Her stories about the slightly androgynous young girl Freddy have a warmth and sharp sense of humor that’s well-matched by her loose, thick line.  Tom Hart was her senior advisor at CCS, and the influence one can see is not so much on her drawing technique or subject matter, but rather of instilling a confidence in her own drawing style.  Mendes draws in a slightly scribbly, cartoony style, but her stories are packed with expressive characters and a fluidity of motion.  One can see her in the same evolutionary line as a Hart, down to the use of iconic figures that at times border on the grotesque, but I also see her as in the same family tree as Crocket Johnson.  She uses that same bold, thick line and portrays children as agents of both adventuresomeness and naivete.  Throw in the same sort of knowing observations about unusual family interactions seen in Lynda Barry’s work, and you have an impressive set of comics’ relatives.

FREDDY (MORE STORIES) was part of Mendes’ thesis project at CCS, and one can track the growth she’s made as an artist from the first connection of Freddy stories.  Mendes noted that Little Lulu was an influence on these stories, and one can see that in terms of the forcefulness of the Freddy character and her confidence.  At the same time, Mendes also noted that Freddy was partly autobiographical, and one can see that play out in terms of the way others treated Freddy at times.

The design for Freddy is simple but distinctive: a simply-rendered figure wearing a hoodie with hair sticking out, shorts and sneakers.  With a six-panel grid (2×3), Mendes establishes a lively rhythm for these little slice-of-life stories that work well because Freddy is active but rarely expresses her feelings through dialogue (unlike Little Lulu, who constantly narrates her own adventures).  As a result, this approach lends itself equally well to little adventures like Freddy making a “potion” and leaving it behind for a tough kid and the daily grind that is elementary school, as she is constantly teased as to what her gender actually is by her classmates.

The most powerful strip in the book, and the one that best recapitulates the character and the comic, is the last one, where Freddy visits an amusement park.  After being denied a cool ride because she’s too short, she made the best of it on a kiddie ride.  She then spotted an injustice (a teen stealing a giant teddy bear from a kid) and confronted it, getting some restitution.  Finally, she’s rewarded with a dollar and gets a sugary malasada and goes to see a band play, contentedly falling asleep in the arms of her mother.  The strip sums up the character’s abrasiveness, tenderness, sense of justice and whimsy.  It’s a perfect evocation of childhood, time and place that would be ideal for children.

WARMTH is a more stylized, silent story that also features Freddy.  Done in a heavy charcoal style, this comic sees Freddy picking up a wounded animal and navigating a shadowy, threatening forest.  Mendes effectively creates an atmosphere of menace that Freddy (a born nurturer) must contend with, but even she is flummoxed when faced with crossing a busy street.  This comic was an interesting visual experiment for Mendes, who usually works in a style free of clutter or heavy background influence.  Here, the backgrounds told the story, matched up with the nuanced facial expressions of Freddy and the spot of red (blood) on the animal that followed the reader from panel to panel.  Mendes’ style invites the use of color, so it will be interesting to see how she continues to incorporate this into her future Freddy stories.

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One Response to “In-Between: New Comics From Melissa Mendes”

  1. Tom Hart says:

    It should be mentioned that Melissa redrew many of these pages 2 times (a total of three versions) to get everything right. She was dedicated! It’s especially true of the carnival story, mentioned rightly above, as the best piece in the book. Most of those pages were drawn, in ink, three times to reach the final version it is now.

    Congratulations to Melissa.